What is No Wave?

No Wave

no wave genre new york

No wave was a musical genre that emerged in New York City in the late 1970s. The genre was characterized by a DIY aesthetic, a focus on experimentation and innovation, and a strong influence from avant-garde music. No wave was a reaction against the commercialism and formulaic approach of mainstream rock music and was often associated with the underground arts scene of New York City. While the no wave genre was short-lived and never achieved commercial success, it profoundly influenced the development of art rock, indie rock, and alternative music.

No Wave Origins

The term "No Wave" emerged from the compilation album "No New York," produced by Brian Eno. This genre, rooted in the late 1970s punk rock scene, was a reaction against mainstream culture. Bands like the Ramones and Talking Heads led this scene with their fast-paced, simple, and politically charged music. However, a subset of musicians began experimenting with unconventional sounds, giving birth to No Wave. This movement was also a reflection of New York City's state during the late 1970s, marked by urban decay and abandonment, which fostered an environment conducive to the creation of raw, unpolished art that defied mainstream norms.

Musical Characteristics of No Wave

One of the key characteristics of no wave was its emphasis on experimentation and innovation. No wave musicians were interested in pushing the boundaries of what was considered "music," and they often used unconventional instruments, experimental recording techniques, and improvisation in their music. This was in contrast to the more formulaic and commercial approach of mainstream rock music, which was often criticized by no wave musicians for its lack of creativity and originality.

No wave musicians were often self-taught and often used cheap and readily available equipment to create their music. This was in contrast to the more polished and professional sound of mainstream rock music, and it was a reflection of the DIY ethos of the punk rock scene.

In terms of musical style, no wave was a fusion of punk rock and avant-garde influences. No wave musicians often used fast tempos, simple song structures, and aggressive guitar playing that was reminiscent of punk rock. However, they also incorporated dissonant chords, complex rhythms, and the use of feedback and noise. This resulted in a distinctive sound unlike anything else in the music scene at the time.

Key Figures in No Wave

Glenn Branca was a pivotal figure in the No Wave movement. He started his musical career in the New York punk band the Static before forming the No Wave Orchestra in 1978. Dissonant chords and complex rhythms characterized Branca's music, and he is often attributed with helping to define the No Wave sound. His compositions were known for using alternate tunings and repetitive structures, creating a dense, hypnotic, challenging, and invigorating sound. Branca's work was influential within the No Wave scene and in the broader context of experimental and avant-garde music. His influence can be seen in various artists and genres, from Sonic Youth to post-rock and noise music.


Rhys Chatham was another key figure in the No Wave scene. He started his career in the punk band the Neon Boys before forming the Glenn Branca Ensemble in 1977. Chatham's music was characterized by its minimalist approach, incorporating elements of punk rock, free jazz, and classical music. He was known for his large-scale compositions for multiple guitars, creating a dense, layered, chaotic, and harmonious sound. Chatham's work was influential in the No Wave scene and beyond, with his innovative use of guitar ensembles influencing a range of artists and genres, from post-rock to drone music.

Chatham's journey in the No Wave scene was marked by his interactions with various artists and his evolution as a composer. He was part of the downtown music scene, crossing paths with everyone from Glenn Gould to Glenn Branca. He was a part of the No Wave scene, which was seen as a curse word at the time. Despite the challenges, Chatham proved himself and became a minimalist composer, studying with La Monte Young and working with artists like Tony Conrad. He was a composer/performer, following the tradition of artists like Terry Riley. He was also part of the rock explosion at CBGB's, witnessing the rise of bands like DNA, Lydia Lunch, and others. Chatham's work and influence in the No Wave scene were significant, and his contributions continue to be recognized and celebrated today.

No Wave Bands

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several other bands influenced by no wave and punk rock began to emerge. In New York City, acts like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, The Contortions and Mars were experimenting with wild and distinct kinds of sounds, and their music helped to characterize the no wave genre. These bands often played at the legendary club CBGB, which was the center of the New York punk rock scene, and their music helped to establish no wave as a unique and one-of-a-kind artistic genre.

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks were a seminal band in the No Wave movement, led by Lydia Lunch. The band was known for its aggressive, abrasive sound and confrontational performances. Lydia Lunch, the band's frontwoman, was a key figure in the No Wave scene. She was known for her intense, provocative performances and her nihilistic lyrics. The band's music was characterized by its raw, stripped-down sound, often featuring discordant guitar and harsh vocals. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks were known for their short, intense songs that often clocked in at under two minutes. The band's music was a radical departure from traditional rock music, rejecting melody and harmony in favor of noise and dissonance.

DNA was another influential band in the No Wave movement, featuring Arto Lindsay. The band was known for its experimental approach to music, often incorporating elements of noise, free improvisation, and avant-garde music into their sound. Arto Lindsay, the band's guitarist, and vocalist, was known for his unconventional guitar playing, often using a kitchen knife or other objects to play his guitar. DNA's music was characterized by its chaotic, unpredictable nature, featuring disjointed rhythms, atonal guitar, and Lindsay's distinctive, often unintelligible vocals. The band's music radically departed from traditional rock music, rejecting conventional song structures and norms.

The Contortions were another key band in the No Wave movement, led by James Chance. The group was known for its unique blend of punk rock, free jazz, and funk, with a heavy emphasis on rhythm and groove. The band's frontman James Chance was a charismatic and unpredictable performer, often engaging in confrontational behavior on stage. The Contortions' music was characterized by its chaotic, frenzied sound, featuring dissonant guitar, blaring saxophone, and Chance's manic vocals. The band's music was a radical departure from the punk rock and new wave music of the time, incorporating jazz and funk elements into their sound.

Mars was an American, New York City-based No Wave band, formed in 1975. The band was composed of China Burg (guitar, vocals), Nancy Arlen (drums), Mark Cunningham (bass), and vocalist Sumner Crane. They were briefly joined by guitarist Rudolph Grey. Mars was known for their mixture of angular compositions and freeform noise music jams, featuring surrealist lyrics and non-standard drumming. All the members were said to be completely untrained in music before forming the band.

Theoretical Girls were a central figure in the No Wave movement, despite their relatively brief existence and limited discography. The band was formed by Glenn Branca, a future renowned experimental music composer, and Jeffrey Lohn, a classically trained composer. Other members included Wharton Tiers, who would later become a well-known producer for bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, and Margaret DeWys, who would later become a sound artist.

The band's sound was comparable to other No Wave bands in Manhattan at the time, such as Contortions and DNA. Their music was confrontational and often humorously aggressive, displaying the influence of American minimalist composers. Their sound ranged from sparse, clattering rhythm pieces that seemed to foreshadow early 1980s Sonic Youth, to brutally abrasive slabs of art-punk noise.

New Wave vs. No Wave

New Wave:

  • New Wave was a term applied to a range of pop/rock music that moved beyond the raw simplicity of punk rock. It incorporated elements of pop, disco, electronic music, and even reggae.
  • It was more commercially successful and mainstream than No Wave, with many New Wave bands achieving significant chart success.
  • New Wave often had a more polished, accessible sound and was characterized by its diversity. Bands under this umbrella varied greatly in their sound, but they were generally more melodic and pop-oriented than their punk counterparts.
  • Notable New Wave bands include Talking Heads, Blondie, and The Cars.

No Wave:

  • No Wave was a short-lived, avant-garde offshoot of punk rock, primarily existing in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
  • It was characterized by its experimental, abrasive, and noisy sound. No Wave bands often used unconventional song structures and dissonant harmonies, rejecting the more melodic and polished sound of New Wave.
  • No Wave was more of an underground movement and was closely tied to the contemporary art scene in New York City. It was less about creating commercially successful music and more about artistic expression and pushing boundaries.
  • Notable No Wave bands include James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and DNA.

In summary, while both movements emerged from the punk scene of the 1970s, New Wave was more commercially oriented and musically diverse, while No Wave was more experimental, abrasive, and tied to the underground art scene.

No Wave in Conclusion

Emerging in late 1970s New York City, No Wave was a short-lived yet influential movement that radically countered New Wave and Punk. This avant-garde scene, concentrated in downtown neighborhoods like Tribeca and the Lower East Side, rejected traditional musical structures and commercialization, favoring noise, dissonance, and atonality. Despite its brevity, with many bands disbanding within a year of the "No New York" release, No Wave's emphasis on experimentation and rejection of commercialism left a lasting imprint on underground culture, influencing genres like noise rock and industrial music. Thus, No Wave, characterized by its defiance of mainstream music norms, continues to impact artists today.

No Wave Books

If you would like to learn more about No Wave on your own, here is a list of 3 books we recommend on the subject:

  1. "New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978-88" by Soul Jazz Records: This book is a comprehensive exploration of the No Wave scene, focusing on the interplay between the music and the visual art that defined the movement. It features hundreds of images, including album covers, flyers, and photographs, as well as interviews with key figures from the scene. The book also includes a CD with music from the era, providing a multi-sensory exploration of No Wave.

  2. "No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980." by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley: This book provides a detailed account of the No Wave movement, from its roots in the punk scene to its influence on later genres. The authors, both musicians themselves, provide a first-hand account of the scene, including interviews with key figures and a wealth of photographs. The book focuses on the four core bands of the No Wave movement: the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA, and also explores the wider cultural scene, including No Wave cinema.

  3. "No Wave" by Marc Masters: This book traces the history of the No Wave genre, from its most famous names to its many offshoots and sidetracks. It covers early pioneers like Suicide and Richard Hell, forgotten treasures like Red Transistor and Bush Tetras, and descendants like ESG and Sonic Youth. The book also delves into No Wave cinema, where pioneers like Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, and Beth and Scott B translated the aggression and innovation of No Wave music to the screen. The book is illustrated with rare and previously unseen concert photos, record covers, and other ephemera of the times, and features exclusive interviews with key protagonists from the scene.


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